Thunder-Spurs Game 6: Oklahoma City proves it’s ready, advances to finals

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Since the 1999 season, only three teams have represented the Western Conference in the NBA finals — the Dallas Mavericks, the Los Angeles Lakers and the San Antonio Spurs.

In the first round of the 2012 playoffs, the Thunder crushed Dallas. In the second round they showed they were well ahead of the Lakers.

And on Wednesday night they proved they are ready to be champions. They showed they are the worthy continuation of that legacy.

The Thunder came back from 18 down, 15 at the half against a veteran and feisty Spurs team to win 107-99 and take the series 4-2. After the Spurs won 20 games in a row the Thunder picked up their play at both ends — their defense cut off dribble penetration and their offensive ball movement improved — and OKC swept the Spurs out of the playoffs in four straight. There was nothing Gregg Popovich or the Spurs could do about it — the Thunder were the better team.

The NBA finals will begin Tuesday in Oklahoma City (they had a better record than either team left in the Eastern Conference).

San Antonio did not go easily or quietly — they made adjustments to free up Tony Parker and get him penetrating again and the Spurs raced out to an early lead. Parker initiated his offense earlier and when he did wait for the high pick the player (Tim Duncan, usually) came from farther away off the baseline to make the Thunder bigs cover more ground. It worked. Parker had 17 points in the first quarter alone (he finished with 29) and the Spurs led by 18 at one point in the first quarter and 15 at the half.

We tend to think of these Spurs as young — Kevin Durant is just 23 and their core is all under 25 — but they have been through the playoff wars. And they used that youth and veteran skill to change the second half. Once again the long arms and fast legs of the Thunder seemed to be in the way of every Spurs player.

“We can’t have their legs, we can’t have their energy,” the Spurs’ Manu Ginobili said after the game in a televised press conference. “I can’t jump as high.”

The Thunder have grown up — they grew up in this series as their ball movement improved game to game. They withstood the Spurs storm in Game 5 and in this game you knew a second half run was coming.

Oklahoma City did it with defense — they are long and athletic and disrupt shots and passing lanes. They close out fast. They took away the Spurs easy looks. The Spurs shot 32 percent in the third and were outscored 14, they shot 33 percent in the third and were outscored by nine.

Durant led the charge with 14 of his 34 in the third quarter when the Spurs lead disappeared. But it was every Thunder player — Westbrook slashing through the lane, James Harden with a key wing three, Derek Fisher doing what he does in big games with a three from the corner. It was a team win.

Right now, the Thunder are playing better than either team out of the East. They have the athleticism to match the Heat, and Boston’s offense has not had to deal with this kind of length and athleticism. OKC has an amazing offense, a good defense, great young talent…

And they are not wide-eyed kids. They have paid their dues the past three years, learning how win, how to get here.

Right now the Thunder are poised to win the NBA title. It’s not that simple, but it’s theirs for the taking.

LeBron James flips elimination-game game on its head

AP Photo/Charles Krupa
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His Cavaliers down 3-2 to the Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, how does LeBron James assess his situation?

"I don’t enjoy being in the position where it’s you lose and go home," LeBron said before Game 6 tonight in Cleveland.

He might not enjoy this position, but he’s pretty good in it.

Since he first reached the playoffs in 2006, other teams have won 26% of their elimination games. LeBron’s teams have won 57% of theirs.

Of course, LeBron hasn’t gone 12-9 in elimination games just because he’s lucky. He has willed his team off the mat numerous times.

LeBron has scored 40 points and/or had a triple-double in six straight elimination games, winning five of them. His line in his last elimination game before that streak? Just 32 points, 18 rebounds and nine assists.

A full history of LeBron’s elimination games:

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Rockets played with fire with Chris Paul, got burned

AP Photo/David J. Phillip
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Chris Paul played 79 minutes in three days.

Prior to Games 4 and 5 of these Western Conference finals, he hadn’t done that in more than two years. He hadn’t done it without both games going to overtime in more than three years.

The Rockets leaned heavily on the 33-year-old Paul, and they’ll pay the price.

Paul will miss Game 6 against the Warriors tomorrow. Given how quickly Houston ruled out Paul with a strained hamstring, he seems unlikely to play in a potential Game 7 Monday.

Injuries are somewhat – but not completely – random. Players are more susceptible when worn down. After missing the close of the 2016 postseason, Paul missed 45 games the last two regular seasons. He has accumulated a lot of mileage in his 13-year career.

Yet, Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni drastically shortened his rotation, anyway. Not only did Paul play big minutes in this series, he shouldered a huge load. He took the reins of the offense at times, allowing James Harden to conserve energy for defense, while maintaining his own strong-two way play. That’s never easy, especially in these high-intensity games.

This was the risk.

We can feel bad for Paul and his predicament. We can also acknowledge Houston got this far by gambling on Paul’s health.

That’s not to say it was a bad bet. This is what you save him for, the biggest playoff series of his career and maybe one of the last before he exits his prime. The Rockets would have been far worse off to this point resting Paul extensively and protecting him. Even with such a heavy workload, an injury was never fait accompli. And Houston got plenty from Paul before he went down. He was instrumental to wins in Game 4 and Game 5 that gave the Rockets a 3-2 lead in the Western Conference finals.

Now, they just must hope that’s enough of a head-start into a world of playing without Paul.

Chris Paul out for Rockets-Warriors Game 6

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The Rockets bought themselves margin for error by earning home-court advantage and taking a 3-2 lead in the Western Conference finals.

They’ll need it.

Chris Paul will miss Game 6 against the Warriors tomorrow with a strained hamstring.

Rockets release:

The Houston Rockets announced today that guard Chris Paul will miss Saturday’s game at Golden State with a right hamstring strain that occurred during the fourth quarter of last night’s game against the Warriors. He will be re-evaluated after the team returns to Houston.

Golden State was already heavily favored at home. This will tilt the odds even further in its favor.

But the Rockets aren’t completely incapable without Paul. They went 15-9 without him this season. James Harden and Eric Gordon can assume extra playmaking duty.

Still, this is a massive loss. When Harden is overburdened offensively, his defense suffers. Gordon is already playing a lot of minutes, so greater responsibility will come in role, not playing time. To fill Paul’s minutes, Mike D’Antoni will have to expand a rotation he had masterfully tightened. Gerald Green could play more. Luc Mbah a Moute could return to the rotation.

A Game 7 looks increasingly likely. Will Paul return for that? The 2018 NBA title might hinge on that question.

Given how quickly the Rockets announced Paul would miss Game 6, there isn’t much reason for optimism about Paul’s availability three days from now, either.

Report: Chris Paul’s hamstring injury ‘not good’

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The question looming over the Western Conference finals: How is Chris Paul?

The Rockets revealed little last night about Paul’s hamstring injury. Time to see how his body responded would provide clarity.

Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

That stinks. It’s also a fairly expected development. Paul appeared to be in rough shape before leaving the court.

The Rockets have bought themselves margin for error, but a sidelined or even hobbled Paul would sap a lot of it.

If Paul can’t play in Game 6 tomorrow, expect Eric Gordon and James Harden to receive a larger offensive roles (though not necessarily more minutes). Gerald Green could play more, and maybe Luc Mbah a Moute gets back into the rotation.